by Evan Pattak
After an absence of at least 50 years, harness racing is returning to the Somerset County Fair. This week’s fair will feature two days of harness racing — Thursday, Aug. 20 at 2 PM, Friday, Aug. 21 at noon — with each card offering a full schedule of Pennsylvania Fairs stakes.
Actually, the 50+ number is an estimate; no one knows for sure when or why harness racing disappeared from Somerset, which is about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh along the PA Turnpike. Jeff Romesberg, immediate past president of the Somerset County Fair Board and the driving force behind the rebirth of harness racing, has been researching the subject without much luck.
“I just can’t answer when or why it left,” Romesberg says. “The interesting thing is, the event actually started as a harness racing club and migrated into an actual fair. Somewhere along the line, harness racing left.”
Romesberg got the idea of restoring harness racing after sitting in on numerous harness meetings at PA Fairs conventions and seeing the wide enthusiasm for the sport — and for new venues. But even after he was able to persuade the board to authorize harness racing, the to-do list included a number of action items.
First was upgrading the track which, in the absence of harness racing, had been used exclusively for demolition derbies and truck pulls. Donated services helped enormously in this task.
“One of the officers of our board owns an excavating company,” Romesberg says. “”He’s very skilled at working dirt. He brought his grader over and redid the track.”
The fair board also had valuable advice from Sam Beegle, president of the Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association, and Rich Gillock, Beegle’s counterpart at the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association (MSOA), on how to make the refurbished track as safe as possible for horses and horsemen.
As a result, the restored track emerged wider than the old surface, meaning the fair may be able to start six horses across, a rare luxury for PA fair tracks.
Other tasks remained. For publicity, the board purchased advertising on nine billboards covering six counties. But it still needed what fairs often call a “speed superintendent,” in effect the race secretary for the event. That slot was filled when Romesberg missed a board meeting. The board took that opportunity to name him speed superintendent, which illustrates the peril of missing even one meeting.
When the board began planning its harness racing component, COVID-19 was not on anyone’s radar screen. Romesberg notes the virus’ continuing hold on the country gave the board pause.
“There was a point when we were on the fence,” he says. “We definitely spent some time wondering if people would feel safe enough to come out and if they would have any money to spend. We asked residents what they were thinking, and about 90 percent said they were excited about coming. It’s definitely a gamble. We’ll come out of this being heroes or zeros.”
It’s an even bigger roll of the dice than that. While most PA fairs have canceled most of their activities, with harness racing a sometime exception, the Somerset County Fair Board is presenting pretty much a full-scale event. There won’t be any carnival rides, but the fair will include six nights of grandstand entertainment, a concert, games, food vendors and all the usual livestock competition.
“Masks are welcome,” Romesberg says. “We’ll do everything to keep people as safe as we can while promoting agriculture and harness racing.”
The events seem sure to exceed the state-imposed limit of 250 people at any gathering, which could jeopardize state funding for future fairs. The board is prepared for that as well.
“We’re hoping that fair events this year are so popular that we won’t really need state money next year,” Romesberg says.